Discussion: Note Taking for Meetings

I recently received an email from reader Anandha asking if I had a sheet for note taking in meetings:

[…] I attend numerous meetings and often find myself writing in a book I carry around. I also use the book for my task list. So the book covers both notes and my to do list. My to do list is usually for the week.

Anandha continues:

I have tried two books – one for notes and another for keeping track of tasks. This workflow is kind of ok, but not that great either. I was going to try 1 book for my to do list, and then take a pad or sheet of paper for meeting notes, and then capture my to do in the master list.. Or maybe you have some thoughts on a better flow for this?

I didn’t remember what I did for meetings, as it’s been a while since I’ve had to attend one with more than one or two people at it. So I wrote:

I tend to just sketch in a large notebook, and force myself to create the todos right afterwards. For a while, I used the AutoFocus system (one of the earlier versions) in a reporter-style Moleskine, with the big notebook (a 9×12) serving for Emergent Task Planner storage for the day. However, I tend to draw my ETP forms, a simplified version, as an excuse to use my fountain pen.

It seemed like an interesting question to pose to everyone, as I’m sure people have a lot of different approaches with corresponding rationales behind their note-taking strategies. Speaking for myself, as I tend to be deliverable-focused:

  • I’m generally trying to accurately capture the concerns and expectations of people at the meeting, because from this I can usually synthesize what actually needs to be done.

  • I’m also keeping track of who is who, who does what, and who else is important on this project. I sometimes draw a picture of a table first, and note who is sitting at what position, so I can match name to face later with a bit more ease.

  • I’m capturing essential deliverables and expectations from them, along with dependencies and related events that depend on our deliverable.

  • I’m capturing trends and reading between the lines regarding confidence, seniority, power-relations within the group, though I don’t usually write this down. A specific question may arise in my mind, though, so I will write that speculatively in a “questions?” part of my page. If the question doesn’t get answered in the course of normal discussion, then I’ll ask it when it seems there’s an appropriate time.

  • If it’s a meeting where I can use a notebook computer with a decent keyboard, I can type almost in real time, capturing whole phrases and expressions as I am talking. This is possible if I’m not a key participant.

  • I will sometimes have a digital camera with high-ISO (so I don’t have to use the flash) to take pictures of key materials and whiteboard contents during and after the meeting. I ask first if it’s OK; many companies don’t like recording devices to be used. I usually don’t use video or audio recording devices; they affect the way people talk, sometimes.


p>The most important thing for me is to distill everything I need to know in the 10-15 minutes after the meeting. This is essential, because it’s the only time I’ll have to note my purest impressions of what’s going on as clearly as I can remember. The moment I talk to someone else on the project, that impression will change based on that person’s preconceptions, so I like to have my “first impression” recorded as a starting point. Also, subsequent interactions with people during the day tend to clutter my memory, so it’s important to right down what’s foremost in my mind at the moment it occurs. After that, I can do whatever I want, and easily return to my mindset a day or even weeks later.

What do you all use to take notes during meetings?